How the law of freedom transforms our understanding of James 2


James, a fall bible study

James 2:1-5 and James 2

The equality of all people through the gospel was and is countercultural. This equality is not apparent in this life; however, the equality will come when Jesus returns. All who have faith will share in the riches of heaven, and our view of people should be one of honor and respect, no matter their status in this life, because each person is loved and will be honored by God. 1 Although I encourage you and me to think about ways we can not discriminate, what catches my eye for today’s reading is the wider context of James 2 and how the teaching about snobbery toward the poor relates to faith.

James is writing to a young church (all churches were young in his time) that believed in some fashion that God blessed the holy with money but made the sinful poor. As noted in another post, I suspect he is writing to primarily to Jewish believers since the letter is addressed to the twelve tribes, and the writings of Moses promised blessings to those who are obedient to the law. These new believers have not shifted their beliefs yet regarding the poor. James objects to discrimination based on appearance and clothing. He argues first against the belief that the poor are cursed. Rather than explaining how the old covenant of Moses is fulfilled by Jesus, James simply points out that the poor are blessed by God because he has chosen the poor to be recipients of faith and of God’s kingdom. Unstated but assumed is that the poor being chosen by God is in contrast to the old covenant, where poverty was a punishment for disobedience. James then points out that the rich are not the blessed obedient by noting that the people harassing the church were rich and were sinning by blaspheming Jesus’s name.

The next few verses (and the rest of the chapter) tend to be misunderstood as a push for us to be obedient to the law as an active faith, but James is actually making the opposite point in a way similar to Paul in Romans 2:1-3:24, where Paul argues that all have fallen short of the law and have broken it in some way. (Despite some scholars thinking that James was written early on, I think it was a letter appearing after Romans had been distributed because James’s letter could almost be a commentary on it.) Similar to Paul’s letter to the Romans, James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” James is making the point that every person has broken the law given to Moses, so they should not be judging the poor as if their poverty was a sign of unholiness.

Jame then says every believer should act as if they are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom. What does that mean? Again, I think he is mirroring Romans. After showing that the law could not be kept, Paul says:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith (Romans 3:21-27).

Paul says there are two laws. There is the law of works, and there is the law of faith. The law of works brings a righteousness through obedience to the law; the only problem was that we were not able to fulfill the law, so the law acted instead to highlight disobedience. The law of faith brings righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. James uses different terminology, saying the law of freedom rather than law of faith, but these terms seem to be synonymous. The law that gives freedom is the kind of law that gives mercy. Therefore, James argues, if you have received mercy from God, you should act toward others according to this same law of freedom. If you truly believe that you are being judged according to the law of faith rather than the law of works, then speak and act that way. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

The rest of James 2 is almost as if James had a minor tiff with Paul about how he presented the faith of Abraham in Romans 4 and wanted to clarify that faith does express itself through action, and he has some logical points; however, there is a vast divide between being saved by good works and expressing faith that you believe that God was merciful to you. James knew there was a difference between expressing faith in God’s mercy and being saved by good works, but we tend to get confused.

James’s example of how to take care of the poor in James 2:14-17 by giving rather than just well wishing is an example of words being given power through action, but it is not an example of faith. I find it strange that James never explains beyond “law of freedom” what exactly is an expression of our faith, except to encourage again and again mercy instead of judgement. I think that is because our faith is not about good works. Yes, God is transforming us into his image, and as his image bearers, we will do good works, but our saving faith is trust in God’s mercy and learning to extend that mercy to others.




This series is inspired (but not sponsored) by FBC (First Baptist Church of Davis) and their fall focus running from October 4, 2015 through November 28, 2015. When I first heard FBC was doing this series, the lectionary reading and sermon that day at my own church, Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church, was from the book of James, and it really spoke to me; James is also the first bible study I completed on my own: I was fourteen, and I wrote with colored markers in a spiral notebook each morning before school, using an observation-reflection-action method similar to the one outlined in FBC’s bible-study guide. I am looking forward to spending more time meditating on this challenging book of the New Testament. I will be using the bible study guide provided by FBC with the accompanying scripture throughout this series; however, my methodology might hop around from anecdotal to more analytical word study. My goal is to do this study daily, or at least a few times a week! A big thanks to FBC for their theme, chosen scriptures, and structure of this study.

Week 3
Monday – James 2 [James 2:1-5 for FBC]
Tuesday – [James 2:1-13 for FBC]
Wednesday – [James 1:19-27 for FBC]
Thursday – Mark 2:13-17
Friday – Luke 6:20-23




  1. I wonder if there will be some inequality in heaven since Jesus taught to store up treasures for yourself in heaven by being generous to the poor; however, if there is inequality, it will be an inequality that is just and still pretty good for the lowliest person because we will all be in the presence of true Love and a gigantic, eternal feast with no calories.

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